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For asylum seekers, path to citizenship is paved with peril

John Makely / NBC News

After writing a controversial open letter criticizing Iran's supreme leader, human rights activist Parvaneh Vahidmanesh knew her life would be in danger if she went home. After gaining asylum, she settled in Washington, D.C., where she is seen here on April 2.

This is story is part of NBC News’ series “Immigration Nation,” an in-depth examination of immigration in America

Immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship often run substantial risks for their chance at a new life, but none have more on the line than asylum seekers.

Parveneh Vahidmanesh, an Iranian student who was visiting the United States when controversial elections in her homeland triggered demonstrations and a bloody crackdown on protesters in 2009, typifies the stakes when political activism collides with authoritarian regimes.

When she learned of the crackdown, Vahidmanesh wrote an open letter in the Wall Street Journal criticizing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – an expression of outrage that, in the estimation of U.S. authorities, would have immediately put her in mortal danger if she returned home.

“The article was my responsibility to my people and my friends,” said Vahidmanesh, now 32. “I didn’t think about the risk and danger to my future. I just wrote it.”

The United States guarantees asylum – and a path to citizenship – to individuals who are in the country and can prove they have suffered persecution or have a legitimate fear that they will suffer persecution if they return to their home country, as a result of their politics, race, nationality or membership in a particular social group. There is no cap on the number of "asylees" who can be admitted annually.

(Separately, the U.S. grants “refugee” status to qualifying individuals outside the United States who are of “special humanitarian concern.” Each year the president and Congress establish a ceiling for the number of refugees admitted. In 2011, for instance, the number was 80,000.)

Source: U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services; U.S. Justice Department; U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

To win asylum, candidates must prove their case – through interviews with immigration officials or by appearing before an immigration judge – or be returned to their country of origin. The burden of proof is high: 86,053 applicants sought asylum in the U.S. in 2012, but only 24,969 – about 29 percent – received it, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Within the asylum path to citizenship, there are two types of cases: affirmative and defensive. Affirmative cases are filed by applicants who are legally in the country at the time, while defensive cases are filed to prevent forcible deportation, possibly after being caught with false papers at a port of entry or being found in the country illegally or in violation of their immigration status. 

Vahidmanesh’s case is an example of an affirmative case.

A human rights activist who had already been hauled in for questioning by Iranian authorities months earlier for documenting  the Islamic republic’s dwindling Jewish population, Vahidmanesh was studying in the U.S. at the invitation of the University of Virginia when the post-election violence reached its peak.

'I just decided to do something'
She said that when she saw video showing the death of 26-year-old Neda Soltan, who became the worldwide face of the uprising after she was shot during a protest, she could no longer remain silent.

“At that time, I was very emotional,” Vahidmanesh said from Washington, D.C., where she now lives and works. “Every day I cried. I see my country under fire and I just decided to do something.”

Why is it so important to become a U.S. citizen? At recent swearing in ceremonies in Los Angeles, we asked our newest citizens that question.

That something was an open letter addressed, “Dear Ali Khamenei,” in which she pointed out that the Iranian supreme leader’s daughter – a former classmate of Vahidmanesh’s who was nearly the same age as Soltan – was safe while the young protester was dead for trying to express her opinion.

Vahidmanesh sought asylum shortly after her letter was published by the newspaper, arguing that the Iranian government would be certain to target her for reprisal if she returned home.

She was fortunate to get an attorney – something many asylum seekers must do without – provided pro bono by Human Rights First, an independent advocacy group that matches lawyers with asylum candidates trying to navigate the immigration system.

Her case was persuasive, and she was granted asylum two weeks after her interview with an immigration official.

Vahidmanesh was spared having to plead her case in a courtroom-like proceeding before an immigration judge, the setting where defensive asylum cases play out.

Defensive applicants must present physical evidence, provide witnesses and document conditions in their home country – based on State Department reports – to prove they were persecuted at home or would be if they went back.

Many defensive asylum seekers are held in prison-like detention centers around the country before they get their day in court. The Department of Homeland Security detained 429,000 immigrants, including asylum seekers, in more than 250 detention facilities at some point during 2011, according to the ACLU.

Attorney Vanessa Allyn, who has advised in hundreds of asylum cases for Human Rights First, says the biggest pitfall for asylum seekers is lack of legal representation.

“They don’t speak the language, and many have never encountered a legal system – much less a legal system like that of the United States – before,” said Allyn. 

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency doesn’t keep statistics on the number of asylum seekers who have legal representation, but Allyn said Human Rights First’s pro bono lawyers win 90 percent of their asylum cases, while the overall success rate is about 25 percent.

At home in the uniform
Ahmed Fadiga, who fled his native Ivory Coast in December 2004, spent seven months in detention before he appeared in court. He won his case, then swapped the blue-on-blue uniform of the detention center for Army fatigues in order to get citizenship.

Courtesy Ahmed Fadiga

Ahmed Fadiga poses with his wife, Jocelyn, and sons Ismael and Ahmed Jr. in January at his welcome home ceremony at Fort Carson, in Colorado Springs, Colo., after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.

“The Army, it’s like my second family,” Spc. Fadiga, 34, said in a recent phone interview from Colorado Springs, where he is based with the Army 2nd Aviation Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, at Fort Carson.

Fadiga left his West African homeland in the wake of civil war. As a vocal member of the main opposition political party, Fadiga said, he was beaten, tortured and imprisoned by the ruling party’s militia. He went into hiding, but military thugs who went to his home killed his mother when they failed to find him, according to documents presented in his asylum case.

Fadiga traveled to the United States with false papers – something he said he admitted immediately upon arrival -- and requested political asylum.

As far as Immigration Customs Enforcement officials were concerned, however, he had sought entry with a stolen passport, so he was thrown in detention in New Jersey until his case could be heard.  

Again, thanks to pro bono legal counsel, Fadiga won asylum. But that’s when his journey to become an American citizen really began.

Asylum is just the first step on a long road to citizenship. “Asylees” are authorized to work immediately and can apply for a green card granting permanent residence after one year. But they must hold the green card for five years before they can apply for citizenship. And they are not given preference in their application for citizenship, according to the USCIS.

After nearly four years of trying to make it in America – studying English, working menial jobs and taking classes at a community college – Fadiga decided to join the military to get citizenship more quickly, and for free.

Within six months of joining the Army, he became a naturalized citizen.

He is now a fuel specialist and recently returned from a one-year deployment in Afghanistan. His wife, Jocelyn, 27, joined him here from the Ivory Coast and is in dental school, when she’s not taking care of their two sons, Ismael, 8, and Ahmed Fadiga Jr., 3 –  both U.S. citizens.  

Fadiga said he expected some discrimination in the Army – as an African and practicing Muslim – but that’s not what he found. “We all get treated the same. That really surprised me. And at the same time, it made me feel like a true American,” he said.

Was it all worth it?

“Absolutely,” said Fadiga. “Besides getting to be a citizen, I got a job that helps me to provide for my family.”

Vahidmanesh also feels a debt to this country. She now works at the Freedom House, a non-government organization that champions freedom around the world, on the Iran desk. She plans to apply for citizenship in five years when she becomes eligible.

She says the U.S. “saved my life, my future, my children” – even though she doesn’t yet have any. “If I was in Iran, I would never try to be mother.”

Related links:

NBC News' series: Immigration Nation

Through the obstacle course of immigration, many paths to citizenship 

To get green cards, these immigrants must prove they are extraordinary

By the numbers: How America tallies its 11.1 million undocumented immigrants 

Waiting half a life for a green card: Families languish in immigration line